Is God Okay with Genocide? Part 1

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Is God Okay with Genocide? Part 1

When we think of the most horrific events in human history, genocides top the list. The murder of the Armenian Christians by the Turks at the end of World War I. The Pol Pot massacre in Cambodia. The slaughter of Tutsi by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994. While Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong are credited with killing more than Adolf Hitler, he is the face of evil because of his systematic murder of six million Jews. There is something horrifyingly chilling about one group of people systematically wiping out another down to the last child.

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Apparent Genocide in the Bible

And yet, in the Bible, genocide appears to be commanded by YHWH and carried out by His people. Consider the following verses:

But in the cities of these peoples that YHWH your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as YHWH your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against YHWH your God. (Deut 20:16-18, emphasis added)

“When YHWH your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when YHWH your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. (Deut 7:1-2, emphasis added)

“Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout, for YHWH has given you the city. And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to YHWH for destruction.’ … 21Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (Josh 6:16b-17, 21, emphasis added).

“So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as YHWH God of Israel commanded.” (Joshua 10:40, emphasis added)


I could list more verses in a similar tenor but the point is clear: YHWH commands the Israelites to eradicate the inhabitants of Canaan down to the last child. In other words, YHWH went full Hitler, which ought to be a rather disturbing concept. As Paul Copan notes, this is the most challenging ethical issue in the Old Testament,[1] one that raises all sorts of questions about the kind of God we serve. Is He a God who not only endorses ethnic cleansing, but actively engages in it? Is that a God we ought to serve? Just what was going on in Deuteronomy through Judges anyway?

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My article will attempt a brief answer to these questions. First, I will examine the nature of warfare in the ancient world and the Conquest of Canaan in particular, which shows that YHWH instructed the Israelites to engage in “total” or “absolute war” as opposed to systematic extermination. Next, I will analyze the limits of “the ban” (in Hebrew ḥerem), which demonstrates that even “total war” was limited to a specific time and place. Finally, I will look at cases where YHWH extended grace to those under the ban, which proves that YHWH had no interest in destroying humans, but only a toxic system bound to ruin of His own people if allowed to endure.

Genocide or Total War, and What is the Difference?

To determine whether YHWH commanded and carried out genocide, we need to first clarify whether the Conquest was indeed a case of genocide. As stated in the previous paragraph, I suggest that the Conquest was not genocide but “total war.” What is total war and how does it differ from genocide?

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Total war, also called “absolute war,” is defined as

“a war which is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the accepted rules of war are disregarded.”[2]


Genocide, on the other hand, is defined by the United Nations as

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

1. Killing members of the group;

2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[3]

The UN goes on to clarify that “cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group” and that “the target of destruction must be the group, as such, and not its members as individuals.”[4] In other words, people are killed because they are in a particular group, not individuals of a particular group who happen to be killed together.

At the surface, the Conquest sounds like what the UN defines as genocide. The Israelites were, apparently, commanded to annihilate specific nationalities, which of course involved killing members of the group. But what about points 2-5? And did any of these take place in a context other than battles?

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The Goals of the Conquest

To answer these questions, let’s look at the goals of the Conquest and comparable “annihilation” campaigns from the Ancient Near East and see if the destruction of a particular people group was the goal, or whether the unrestricted warfare on the Canaanites[5] was a means to an end, fitting the definition of total war.

The most obvious purpose of the Conquest was to provide the Israelites with a homeland, one promised to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.[6] It was to be their “inheritance” – YHWH’s covenantal gift to them.

What was YHWH’s purpose in carving out this land for the Israelites? As evident in the numerous promises to the Patriarchs throughout Genesis, the end goal was that all nations of the earth would be blessed through their descendants. The goal is even clearer in Exodus 19:5-6, where God says: “5Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”[7] In ancient religions priests were intermediaries between people and gods, so the Israelite nation was to be an intermediary between YHWH and the rest of the world.

To achieve this, YHWH sought to fashion them into a “holy nation.” In my article on temples, I pointed out that the Israelite type of “Great Symbiosis” was not so much about keeping the god – YHWH in this case – happy but about maintaining holiness so that they may dwell in His presence. Everything about the tabernacle (later the temple), the ritual laws, and even the civil and moral laws were about maintaining holiness before YHWH.

The endgame of all this was the dwelling of YHWH among His people, ultimately in the person of Jesus Himself. So, YHWH was striving to make Israel a holy society where He could dwell – a people to function as His intermediaries to the rest of humanity. Therefore, the goal of the Conquest was to create a space for Israel to grow into this “holy nation” fit for the calling of priesthood, which would facilitate reconciliation between God and the world, specifically through Jesus Christ. An admirable plan with one slight hiccup. The land was already inhabited.

Imminent War with the Canaanites

Moving in alongside the Canaanites wasn’t an option. The Canaanite culture and religion were, from YHWH’s point of view, toxic. Many of the Old Testament laws, particularly the sexual purity laws of Leviticus 18 and the dietary laws, were given in reaction to common practices of the Canaanites (among which bestiality). As the Bible indicates, the Canaanites practiced human sacrifice (children sacrifice explicitly) and worshipped a pantheon of blood-thirsty, sex-crazed gods – a terrible influence over the inhabitants of the promised land.[8]

YHWH’s concern was justified. Moses merely blinked and the Israelites began to worship El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon. The Baal Peor incident further proves the strong pull of paganism. Israel’s propensity to stray from YHWH’s path so easily shows that living alongside Canaanites was not an option.

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Unfortunately, the Canaanites were unlikely to concede the land upon Israel’s arrival, though this would have been a good option. As we will see later, YHWH often describes the Conquest as a “driving out,” suggesting forced move from one location to another rather than annihilation. Sadly, the unlikelihood of this response was proven true. The Canaanites chose to stay and fight.

I recognize that, for many, this seems wrong in and of itself, genocidal or not. It screams of “Manifest Destiny” and other such land-grab bullying campaigns widely reviled in history. However, we must keep in mind that nothing belongs to anyone. As the Bible repeatedly states, the earth and everything in it is YHWH’s. Therefore, He has the right to decide the holders of a land and to unseat a group of people. Paul Copan notes that the Canaanites had lost their right to this particular land because of their immorality. The territory was now to be given to the Israelites. Down the line of history, the Israelites’ immorality caused them similar destruction and dispersion.[9] If we as Christians are going to take seriously the Bible and its claims about YHWH’s sovereignty, then we must accept His right to decide who gets what.

The key point highlighted here is that the focus of the Conquest was the land, not the people. The Canaanites could have been spared if they had left. The consequence of their choice to stay makes them at least partly responsible for their fate.

For the Israelites, the Canaanites’ choice to stay practically meant imminent war. In one of the bloodiest books ever penned, this is arguably the most brutal section. But again, was this war genocidal?

Assyria’s Total War Strategy

Wars of conquest undoubtedly rack up the biggest body count, especially among civilians. Yet a high number of casualties does not automatically turn a war into genocide. The Assyrians, a people renowned for their bloodthirsty cruelty, were not genocidal in their campaigns. Their goals were to harness a region’s resources (including people), so killing everybody was not a good idea. Instead, their strategy was to establish a vassal relationship and then leave them alone, so long as they paid massive amounts of tribute.[10]

But people rarely accepted the heavy demands of a foreign power,[11] so they often fought back. In response, the Assyrians targeted small cities, villages, and hamlets, razed them to the ground, and killed everybody in horrific ways in the hopes of terrifying the larger cities to surrender, which they usually did.[12] Even then, the Assyrians would brutally execute the elite and install their own puppets to ensure collection of the tribute.[13]

While the Assyrians rarely made any sort of distinction between commoners, who had no choice in their kingdom’s rebellion, and the elite, who did,[14] these mass slaughters are not considered genocide. The intent – a key distinguishing feature of genocide[15] – was not to annihilate a group of people, but to ensure the submission of that group.

Military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz defines war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”[16] The Assyrians did whatever it took to meet their ends.  They drew no line between combatant and noncombatant and held nothing back in their assaults in order to achieve their goal of submission. As distasteful as this strategy may be to us, it is not genocide, as the goal was not the annihilation of a people group. It does, however, fit the definition of total war: victory by any and all necessary means.

The Destruction of Israel by Assyria

Okay, you may say, but the Israelites weren’t trying to get the Canaanites to submit to them; they were trying to wipe them from the land. For this, too, we have parallels with Assyria instructive in what kind of warfare we are dealing with. If too many rebellions occurred after a region submitted to the empire, the Assyrians eventually destroyed that group entirely. The northern Kingdom of Israel is one example of such ultimate response. Initially subjugated during the reign of Shalmaneser III in the mid-9th century BC, Israel rebelled on-and-off for about 120 years. Under Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V, Assyrians came back, wiped out some villages, killed a bunch of people, deported some more, and got the Israelite king to submit. Finally, around 722 BC, Sargon II had had enough, sacked Samaria, and wiped the last remnant of Israel off the map.[17] He didn’t just remove the people from the land. He flattened towns and cities, rebuilding them in Assyrian styles[18] and repopulating them with Assyrians. Such a resettlement program was designed to disperse problem people groups throughout the empire so that they would lose their cultural identity, meld into the Assyrian machine, and thus cease to raise troubles. It is estimated that between the 9th to the 7th centuries, some 4.4 million people were shuffled around like this.[19]

For all intents and purposes, Israel ceased to exist. What remained of their culture was physically erased from the land, which was remade in the image of Assyria. Their people vanished into the great Assyrian melting pot and lost their identity. But they weren’t wiped out en masse.

The Assyrians used similar strategies against Babylon and Elam, both of whom were problem children. Babylonians in particular, who deemed themselves culturally superior to the Assyrians, resented the foreign dominance and had a tendency to rebel. During Sennacherib’s tumultuous reign they revolted three times, the first concurring with Hezekiah’s ill-fated uprising. In 689 BC, Sennacherib wiped out Babylon, stating, “I captured it and plundered the city (Babylon). Its people, young and old, I did not spare, and I filled the city squares with their corpse.”[20]

Well … that sounds awful. But the astute Bible scholar will say, “Hold up a minute! If the Babylonians were wiped out, who conquered Judah and destroyed Jerusalem one hundred years later?” The answer is, of course, the Babylonians! So, did Sennacherib actually kill every single Babylonian? Obviously not. What then does his boasting mean? This may clear things up:

I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire the city, and its buildings, from its foundations to its crenellations. I removed the bricks and earth as much as there was, from the inner wall and outer wall, the temples, and the ziggurat, and I threw it into the Arahtu River. I dug canals into the center of that city and thus leveled their site with water. I destroyed the outline of its foundations and thereby made its destruction surpass that of the Deluge.[21] So that in the future, the site of that city and its temples will be unrecognizable, I dissolved it (Babylon) in water and annihilated it, making it like a meadow.[22]

Sennacherib’s grandson, Ashurbanipal, faced a similar situation with the pesky Elamites.[23]He, too, launched an annihilation campaign against the Elamites, which he describes thus:

I destroyed the sanctuaries of Elam so that they no longer existed, I reduced its gods and goddesses to ghosts…. I destroyed, devastated, and exposed to the sun the tombs of their ancient and recent kings, who did not fear Ashur and Ishtar my lords, and who had displeased the kings my fathers. I brought their bones to Assyria, I deprived their shadows of rest, funerary offerings, and water libations. I devastated the provinces of Elam within a radius of two months (marching distance), I spread salt and weeds over them…. The lands of Susa, Madaktu, and Haltemash, what was left of their cities, I brought to Assyria…. I banished from their fields the sound of people, the stamping of cattle and sheep, the cries of joy. I made wild asses, gazelles, and every type of animal of the steppe live there, on verdant pastures.[24]

In both of these annihilation accounts, the emphasis is not on the body count (which was undoubtedly high). Neither makes more than a passing reference to the execution of the populace,[25] instead focusing most of their prose on the destruction of the cities and especially of the religious objects and buildings.

Religion and Identity in the Ancient Near East

So why this fixation on destroying things, especially religious things, over people? In the article on temples, I highlighted that each city or nation had their special god who functioned as their mascot and protector. Essentially, the city or nation identified with their god. Some, such as the Athenians and Assyrians, took this even further, adopting the name of their deity as their own. Therefore, in destroying the religions of rebel groups, the Assyrians aimed at destroying their identity.

Of course, their destruction also included palaces, archives, tombs, and just about anything else that could be distinctly Babylonian or Elamite. They extinguished their religion, their history, and, essentially, their entire culture. It is important to underline again that, while they undoubtedly killed a great many people, wiping out the populace wasn’t the goal; the goal was the destruction of their identity. If they succeeded in this, theoretically, the people ceased to exist and consequently ceased to cause problems. Ironically, within a couple of decades of Ashurbanipal’s Elamite annihilation, the remnant of Elam and Babylon allied against Assyria and permanently obliterated it.

Destructive as this is, it isn’t genocide. The UN specifically states that cultural destruction and population dispersion doesn’t qualify as genocide, which is precisely what the Assyrians did. Rather, they engaged in total war in all its horror. This type of warfare points out Mario Liverani, mirrors the Conquest.[26] Consider the following passages:

“But thus you shall deal with them (Canaanites et al): you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.” (Deuteronomy 7:5)

“You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim.” (Exodus 34:13)

You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)

Even the killing of the Canaanites was for the purpose of destroying their society, specifically their religion:

and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods.” (Deuteronomy 7:2-4)


So, what is the focus here? Is it wiping out a particular people group, or wiping out a particular culture? The answer is obviously the latter. Keep in mind that pushing the Canaanites out of the land was a perfectly acceptable solution. The Conquest, then, was about the destruction of a culture and dispersion of a population. By the UN’s definition of genocide, the Conquest was not genocide. Those who stayed and fought would be killed, but that was their choice. As we will see in the next section, there were limits to Israel’s total warfare meant to soften the blow.

Total War and Divine Mercy

Instead of genocide, what we have is a case of total or absolute war. Now, for many, even if YHWH did not command genocide, such a brutal war is still not acceptable. I submit that the discomfort arises from a misconception of what warfare is. The great Union General William T. Sherman once quipped, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it; the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”[27] Sherman is, of course, renown for enacting his own total war on the American South in his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) March to the Sea during the American Civil War. He left a burning trail of destruction that, some argue, the South still hasn’t recovered from. It broke the will of the South, hastening the end of America’s most destructive conflict.

Modern technology, video games, and media have sanitized war, making it something adventurous and fun. In the real world, the horrors are appalling. In ancient wars, the furthest opponents would be from each other would be 150 meters (ca. 500 feet) via slingshot.[28] Most combat was hand-to-hand, where one had to look into his enemy’s eyes before gutting him. Battles are terrifying, bloody, and brutal affairs. We cannot feel this from our comfortable seats in front of screens. We watch people die or kill them ourselves with our controllers. In some countries the modern soldier, able to blast an enemy into oblivion from half a world away with a drone, is protected from war’s true horror, never hearing the screams, seeing the face, or smelling the blood. For some, even real war has been sanitized.

Yet war is still fundamentally evil. At its core, war is people killing people and there is just no nice or humane way to go about that, and that’s the point. YHWH knows that war, although necessary, is an irredeemable enterprise; so why bother trying to fix it? The Conquest was not YHWH’s first choice but it was also inevitable. The Canaanites were not going to leave willingly, and they could not coexist with the Israelites. War was imminent.

And if war was imminent, YHWH was going to have His people fight only once. Like taking off a Band-Aid, YHWH’s plan was to rip it off instead of trying to slowly pull it off. Had the Israelites tried to make peace, coexist, or fight nicely, two results would have been inevitable: first, there would have been constant warfare for generations, extending the horror of war for centuries; second, the Israelites would have been corrupted, ruining YHWH’s design for them.

Incidentally, that is exactly what happened. The Israelites pulled their punches in the Conquest and allowed the Canaanites to exist among them. The book of Judges records centuries of violence and self-destruction between the Canaanites and Israelites as the latter slid further into anarchy, away from YHWH’s ideal.

So, was the Conquest a genocide? No. The target was Canaanite culture and society, not the people, who were merely collateral damage. Instead, what YHWH commanded was total, unrestricted warfare with the intent of removing Canaanite culture from the land. While it may seem barbaric to our modern, sheltered sensibilities, the truth is that such warfare was the most “humane” way of conducting war, one that would ensure no future hostilities. The Conquest was meant to be a single, albeit protracted war. Instead, Israel’s unwillingness to follow through resulted in a series of wars that lasted centuries.

Click here to read the rest of this series on conquest and genocide in the Bible.



[1] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2011), 158.

[2] “Total War,” Oxford Living Dictionaries, accessed May 30, 2019, Total war also refers to the total mobilization of a civilian populace to the war effort. As mentioned, this definition is sometimes applied to the term “absolute war.” For the purposes of this article, this is the meaning of total war that I will be using.

[3] United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, “Genocide,” United Nations, 2019, accessed June 4, 2019,

[4] Ibid.

[5] While seven different groups are highlighted in the text, I will refer to them by the probably inaccurate but simple blanket term of “Canaanite.”

[6] Gen 12:7; 13:14-15; 14:7, 18-20; 17:8; 26:34; 28:13…you get the idea.

[7] Cf. Deut 28:9

[8] Copan, 159-60. It should be noted that the archaeological data for this is admittedly limited, as the Canaanites in Canaan proper left little written record behind. Their temples do not reveal a lot about their religious practices, although to my knowledge, no human bones have been found in sacrificial contexts, despite what the Bible says. Ugarit, located on the modern Syrian coast north of Tyre and Sidon, appears to have shared a great deal culturally and religiously in common with Israel and Canaan. While the pantheon is indeed rather vile (Anat massacring entire cities for fun, Baal engaging in bestiality, and cannibalism) the rituals are rather tame and quite similar to those of Israel in their nature. However, one must be cautious about drawing one-to-one parallels between the Canaanites and the Ugaritians, as the Ugaritians were not proper Canaanites in language, culture, or even writing system. Thus, exactly how bad the Canaanites were is archaeologically unclear. Mark S. Smith, “Ugarit and the Ugaritians,” in The World around the Old Testament: The Peoples and Places of the Ancient near East, ed. Bill T. Arnold and Brent A. Strawn (Grand Rapids: Brill, 2016).

[9] Copan, 159-63.

[10] Marc Van de Mieroop, A History of the Ancient near East: Ca. 3000-323 Bc, 2nd ed., Blackwell History of the Ancient World (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 250-51.

[11] For the record, those that actually did capitulate actually prospered greatly.

[12] Van de Mieroop, 231.

[13] Mario Liverani, Assyria: The Imperial Mission, Mesopotamian Civilizations, vol. 21 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2017), 142-43.

[14] At least in the beginning part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. After the 9th century BC, it appears the Assyrians were a bit more judicious. Liverani, 142-45.

[15] “Genocide,” United Nations, 2019, accessed June 4, 2019,

[16] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. J. J. Graham (New York: Penguin Books, 1832), 101.

[17] Van de Mieroop, 251.

[18] Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 547.

[19] Karen Radner, Ancient Assyria: A Very Short Introduction, Kindle ed., A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 108.

[20] Albert Kirk Grayson, and Jamie R. Novotny, The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704-681 Bc) Part 2, vol. 2, 2 vols., R.I.N.A.P., vol. 3 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 316.

[21] A reference to the Flood, or at least the Mesopotamian version.

[22] Albert Kirk Grayson and Jamie R. Novotny, The Royal Inscriptions of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (704-681 Bc) Part 2. Vol. 2. 2 vols. R.I.N.A.P., vol. 3. (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 316-17.

[23] People group from modern-day Iran. Not quite the Medio-Persians, but close enough.

[24] Liverani, 150.

[25] Jamie R. Novotny, and Joshua Jeffers, The Royal Inscriptions of Ashurbanipal (668-631 Bc), Assur-Etel-Ilani (630-627 Bc), and Sin-Sarra-Iskun (626-612 Bc), Kings of Assyria Part 1, vol. 1, 2 vols., R.I.N.A.P, vol. 5 (University Park, PA: Eisenbrauns, 2018), 248-49. Ashurbanipal virtually copies and pastes Sennacherib’s comment about killing, taking up a handful of lines, as opposed to the hundreds discussing destruction of property.

[26] Liverani, 151.

[27] Allen C. Guelzo, Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 439.

[28] Aaron A. Burke, “Walled up to Heaven”: The Evolution of Middle Bronze Age Fortification Strategies in the Levant, Studies in the Archaeology and History of the Levant, vol. 4 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 37.

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.